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Archive for Saturday, February 23, 2008

Remember that one time? Rare trait lets man recall all of them

February 23, 2008

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News anchor Brad Williams, 51, is one of two people in the world believed to have a "superior autobiographical memory," the ability to recall the most trifling details from their entire lifetimes.

News anchor Brad Williams, 51, is one of two people in the world believed to have a "superior autobiographical memory," the ability to recall the most trifling details from their entire lifetimes.

— For as long as he can remember, Brad Williams has been able to recall the most trifling dates and details about his life.

For example, he can tell you it was Aug. 18, 1965, when his family stopped at Red Barn Hamburger during a road trip through Michigan. He was 8 years old at the time. And he had a burger, of course.

"It was a Wednesday," recalled Williams, now 51. "We stayed at a motel that night in Clare, Michigan. It seemed more like a cabin."

To Williams and his family, his ability to recall events - and especially dates - is a regular source of amusement. But according to one expert, Williams' skill might rank his memory among the best in the world. Doctors are now studying him, and a woman with similar talents, hoping to achieve a deeper understanding of memory.

Williams, a radio anchor in La Crosse, seems to enjoy having his memory tested. Name a date from the last 40 years and, after a few moments, he can typically tell you what he did that day and what was in the news.

How about Nov. 7, 1991?

"Let's see," he mused. "That would be around when Magic Johnson announced he had HIV. Yes, a Thursday. There was a big snowstorm here the week before."

He went on to identify correctly some 20 other events including the birth of the first test-tube baby in 1978 and the toxic-gas leak in Bhopal, India, in 1984.

So how does he do it?

"You want the Nobel Prize right now? Tell me that answer and I'll publish it," said Dr. James McGaugh, who has studied Williams since last summer. "We don't know."

Scientific literature documents people who could memorize a series of 50 to 100 random letters or digits. Another person read a 330-word story twice, then reproduced it nearly verbatim a year later.

What distinguishes Williams is "superior autobiographical memory" - an above-average ability to remember dates and details from his distant past, McGaugh said.

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